In an apparent attempt to get around the Constitution’s prohibitions against illegal inquiries, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) along with other law enforcement agencies have bought Americans’ personal information.
The FBI acknowledged in March that it bought geolocation information obtained from Americans’ mobile-phone ads, but the agency stated that it has moved past that practice due to legal problems and debate.
Other government organizations, such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), have purchased access to GPS data in the United States.
Rep. Ben Cline (R-VA) questioned Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz about the FBI’s acquisition of Americans’ geolocation data during a House Appropriations Committee meeting in March.
Cline questioned Horowitz about other sections of the Department of Justice (DOJ) purchasing Americans’ private information, calling the stories “disturbing.”
“We’re investigating that, we saw the news stories, we’re taking a look at that issue,” Horowitz responded.
“How did the FBI, and possibly other elements of the DOJ, come to believe that purchasing location data on Americans without a warrant would be considered legal, especially following the Supreme Court’s ruling in U.S. v. Carpenter, which determined that Americans’ location data is safeguarded by the Fourth Amendment?” Cline continued.
“I believe it raises exactly the problems you mentioned,” Horowitz said. “I think what I’m assuming may have happened is that before Carpenter occurred the Dept. took advantage of, perhaps in some cases, the ambiguity that exists in the law. Of course, that should not have occurred post-Carpenter.”
Carpenter v. United States was a significant 2018 Supreme Court decision that held that the U.S. government required a search order to monitor suspects from cellular providers for a prolonged period of time.
Horowitz went on to state that he is unsure about other sections of the DOJ buying communications or internet data.
Cline pressed Attorney General Merrick Garland on the dispute at the end of March during a House Appropriations Committee meeting.
Cline questioned Garland if he concurred with Horowitz that buying Americans’ private information after Carter shouldn’t have occurred.
Garland stated that he has no more knowledge than FBI Director Christopher Wray, who confessed that the FBI used to buy Americans’ private communications data.
“Are any parts of the DOJ still buying location data?” Cline inquired of Garland.
“The Department DOJ has an investigation going on internally to figure out which parts,” of the agency may still be engaging in this behavior, according to the attorney general.
According to Vice, the FBI’s Cyber Division, which examines hackers in computer hacking and national security, spent tens of thousands of dollars on geolocation data.
“Netflow data paints a picture of network traffic volume and flow. This can include information such as which server interacted with another, which is normally only accessible to the server’s owner or the internet service provider (ISP) carrying the data. Team Cymru, the firm that eventually sells this data to the FBI, gets it through agreements with ISPs in exchange for threat information. These transactions are most likely taking place without the full permission of ISP customers.”
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